It’s hard to think about freezing cold weather these days. But the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness has to because it’s legally required to have a plan for the upcoming winter season by September 1.
The annual Winter Plan is supposed to spell out how the District will meet its legal obligation to provide everyone shelter from “severe weather conditions.” For the winter season, this means temperatures at or below 32 degrees, including wind chill factor.
Shelter capacity is thus a key part of the plan. And it’s always a challenge. How many people will need protection from the elements? How will the District provide it?
The ICH Operations and Logistics Committee has made considerable progress in planning for individual homeless men and women, i.e., those who don’t have children with them.
We look at this year’s draft Winter Plan, and we again see specific facilities identified, with bed capacities totaling projected needs based on last winter’s highest demands.
In one respect, Operations and Logistics has also made progress on planning for homeless families. Thanks to some expert help, it has — for the first time — an analytically-sophisticated projection of need.
Or rather, projections, since Operations and Logistics didn’t settle on which to use for predicting how many more families will have no safe place to stay unless the District provides it.
If the increase were 23% — the same as last year’s — the District would need to place 626 families between the beginning of November and the end of March. If it were 30%, the number would rise to 662.
That’s a lot of families to place, even at the low end. And here’s where the draft Winter Plan comes up woefully short — as it has in the past, but in a different and more disturbing way.
Specifically, the draft doesn’t tell us what we’d need to know to assess plans for capacity.
Nothing the Operations and Logistics Committee can do about this. The Department of Human Services is responsible for deciding where families will be placed.
It’s decided that 118 units at DC General — the main emergency shelter for families — will be held in reserve. This apparently assumes they’ll be vacant by November. Most weren’t, as of the first of this month.
The draft plan nevertheless provides for only 153 shelter units. And they’ll all be occupied when the winter season officially begins, it says.
So DHS may have to place at least 473 — and perhaps as many as 509 — families some place other than DC General.
These are actually fairly conservative estimates. Projections distributed at a selective public comments session show that the figure could be as high as 557.
The draft says that “the District government will rely on housing placements.” According to Fred Swann, head of the Family Services Administration, these are mostly rapid re-housing placements.
In other words, families will be given housing subsidies for four months, renewable at quarterly intervals if the parents are behaving themselves, i.e., being good tenants and complying with self-sufficiency plans developed for them.
The draft plan, however, doesn’t say how many families DHS will place in this sort of subsidized housing. Understandably perhaps because we’ve reasons to doubt whether it actually can rely principally on housing placements.
It’s been managing a rapid re-housing program since late 2009. It’s never rapidly re-housed nearly so many families as it would have to if the draft Winter Plan projections are anywhere in the ballpark.*
The program itself raises another issue. At this point, families don’t qualify unless they can show that they’ll be able to “obtain and/or maintain stable housing” when their subsidies expire. Draft rules say that would be at the end of a year.
How many newly-homeless families will be just temporarily down on their luck? Won’t many, as in the past, have become homeless due to persistent problems, e.g., chronic unemployment or underemployment, combined with the growing shortage of affordable housing here?
Well, the draft plan says that DHS will place families in the 118 vacant units at DC General and/or in motel rooms if it can’t match its 2011-12 placement rate. It doesn’t tell us what that is. (See note at the end.)
We need to worry about the fudging — even more perhaps than overly-ambitious housing plans in the past — because DHS could well face a large funding shortfall for its homeless services program.
At this point, it has $7 million less than it had last year because it no longer has leftover federal funds awarded for other programs that it can transfer.
DHS has already indicated that it will eliminate or cut back a range of homeless services — including half the beds it’s been providing for homeless men and women — if the “lost” $7 million isn’t replaced.
And they won’t be unless future revenue projections aren’t at least this much higher than the projection the District’s new budget was built on. The last projection didn’t free up even one dollar for the Council’s contingency funding list.
Has DHS budgeted for this? Or will we find out that there’s virtually nothing left to help homeless people come April?
* DHS now has 150 families in apartments subsidized by its rapid re-housing program. I’m told it took 10 months to place them all.